Bryan Baker – Nothing Falls from the Sky but You and I

Bryan Baker - Nothing Falls from the Sky but You and I

On his Myspace page, songwriter and heretofore jazz guitarist Bryan Baker asserts that his latest batch of new material “sounds like everything he has ever listened to.”  It may read like a fairly insolent claim, but if you think of all of the artists who have been gradually pigeonholed by their relatively narrow list of influences, you have to admire the ambitious creativity and tenacious work ethic that Baker has applied in attempting to surge past the improv/experimental niche that was carved out for him following the release of the all-instrumental Aphotic and the Bill Frisell-meets-Trent Reznor overtones of This Morning Day.  It’s one thing to namecheck subgenres and artists as sprawling as Pantha Du Prince, Tom Waits, ambient, dubstep, and Peter Gabriel within the parameters of a single album, but it’s quite another to so effortlessly evoke each of them through performance, as Baker does with his trademark sense of precision and nearly flawless acuity.

Truth be told, there’s very little of Baker’s guitar wizardry to be found anywhere on Nothing Falls from the Sky but You and I.  Dazzling dances across the fretboard have been eschewed for songs which favor texture over technique and mood over melody.  Though the album revels in the types of grooves and soundscapes that are the hallmark of modern electronica (something that was initially explored on This Morning Day), it also subsumes an impressively varied array of unorthodox instruments – most of them played with Baker’s dexterous touch.  Flecked with, among other things, the occasional zither, singing bowl, or koto, this collection of “raw blues-meets-dark electro-meets-rock” just can’t be dismissed as mindless dancefloor jams; there was simply too much care put into the careful construction and layering of these songs to warrant a passive listen.

Baker’s opening statement is also one of his loudest – “Watch It Fall” rocks hard and heavy upon an infrastructure that ironically features more rippling synth effects than it does guitar solos.  Given additional heft by Paul Kaiser’s clattering drums and Baker’s villain-in-a-Broadway-musical vocals, the song succeeds largely because of the unsuspecting changes in volume, going from a grind to a whisper in the blink of an eye.

While nearly everything attempted on the LP commands attention (only the under-developed and shockingly brief “Death’s a Killer” fails to take hold), many of Baker’s finest moments are as puzzling as they are absorbing.  “Glass Towers” makes good on its title, coated in shimmering layers of sputtering, gurgling synthesizers.  More intriguing though, is the pairing of a club dance pulse with a less emphatic hip-hop beat – Auto-Tune effects and static-coated handclaps included – in the song’s final 90 seconds.  “Sunset King” seems to be making reference to gangsta life in Baker’s hometown of Los Angeles, sung with swaggering bravado while the drums and bass thump loader than a tricked out Honda Civic.  Aaron Henry brings a little more flare to the proceedings with some scorching leads on his tenor sax.  Belying its 4/4 time signature is “The Linguist,” one of the album’s best cuts which also has the most off-kilter drum beat you’re likely to encounter this side of progressive rock.  Bolstering its cred further are some of Baker’s best (and biggest) melodic hooks, which sound like they were tailored to play in front of an audience 30,000 strong.

Given the album’s preoccupation with hip-shaking (and sometimes caustic) IDM, it’s comforting to know that Baker can still dial it down a notch when the bodies need a chance to catch their breath.  “Of Empires” hones in on sonorous acoustic guitar arpeggiations and the airy tone of Aaron Henry’s flute.  Less angular and slow to build than much of the other fare on Nothing Falls, the song wouldn’t be at all out of place in a coffeehouse.  Rounding things out is “Last,” a wonderfully hypnotic assemblage of guitar loops, unsettled piano chords, and mantra-like vocals.

Some might argue that, three albums in, Bryan Baker has yet to find his comfort zone, seemingly more content to indulge in a little genre hopscotching than perfecting his craft as a guitar virtuoso.  Nothing Falls may not be on par with anything from the Kraftwerk or Autechre catalogues, but Baker’s definitely got the talent and perseverance to operate in the same league.

Bryan Baker